The 2014 NBA postseason has seen its fair share of crazy finishes over the past few seconds. That's especially true of the Western Conference Semifinals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, which entered Tuesday night's Game 5 coming off a ridiculous comeback by the Clippers in Game 4. This finish was even crazier.
With 17 seconds remaining, the Clippers held a 104-102 lead and the ball with an inside track to taking a 3-2 advantage in this very competitive series. Chris Paul took the inbounds pass, dribbled up court, and was met by Russell Westbrook. Instead of taking the oncoming foul, Paul rose up to take a 70-footer — hoping to get three free throws, as he often does — only to lose the ball. After a few deflections, it ended up in the hands of Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, who had what seemed like an open path to the basket. Clippers wing Matt Barnes met Jackson at the rim and seemed to foul as the ball went out of bounds. However, referees called it off Barnes and went to replay to check the call.
Check out this Loop for a closer look at the play:
With no foul called on the play, referees can only assess the out-of-bounds call in replay review. All angles appeared to show the ball went off Jackson. However, the officials did not overturn the call and gave OKC a chance to tie or take a last-second lead. On that possession, Westbrook took the ball and went up for an ill-advised 3-pointer, only to get fouled by Paul:
Westbrook hit all three free throws to give the Thunder a one-point lead with six seconds on the clock. On the game's final possession, Paul attempted to get a mid-range look but turned it over to give the home team an improbable 105-104 win.
After the game, the replay review was the main topic of conversation. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had some harsh words for the referees in his press conference:
"The same thing happened to us in the Golden State series where they tried to reverse the call. They didn't even want to look at the replay because they knew it was a foul. And then they had to look at the replay and they had to go by what it said. ... The official on that play knew that he hadn't seen the foul. ... We did a lot of stuff to lose the game ourselves. But at the end of the day, we have a replay system that you're supposed to look at. And I don't want to hear that they didn't have that replay. That's a bunch of crap."
That moment in the Golden State series occurred in Game 1 of the teams' first-round series this April. On that play, no foul was called when Draymond Green appeared to make contact with Chris Paul, and the Warriors were awarded possession after replay review when he lost the ball out of bounds. The NBA later apologized for the missed call, and it's likely that they'll do the same for this mistake ... while also saying that Barnes should have been called for a foul on Jackson. Clearly, the referees made errors in several areas of the play. They attempted to explain themselves in a statement that sounds like an evasion:
Rivers can expect a fine from the NBA for criticizing the referees, but it's easy to understand his frustration. The Clippers appeared to have this game won, and they lost it through a combination of their own mistakes and at least one thing that seemed out of their control. Whether they deserved to lose or not is open to interpretation, but it's obvious that they have reason to feel like they were done wrong by the referees.
Despite the controversy, the Clippers know that they were largely responsible for their own demise in Game 5. With 4:00 remaining in regulation, the Clippers held a 101-88 lead that had them en route to a 3-2 series lead with the opportunity to close things out in Los Angeles on Thursday night. That margin got cut over the next three minutes, but the Clippers still held a 104-97 lead with 49 seconds on the clock and appeared to be in control.
They did not score again. A quick Kevin Durant three-pointer out of a timeout gave the Thunder a chance. After a Jamal Crawford miss, Durant leaked out in transition and took a long pass from Russell Westbrook to cut it to 104-102. After shooting just 5-of-20 from the field to start the game, Durant's late scoring gave his team a chance to complete this comeback.
With Durant struggling for the prior 47 minutes, the Thunder managed to stay in the game through the third-quarter excellence of Russell Westbrook (a game-high 38 points) and regular trips to the free-throw line. OKC shot 22-of-25 from the stripe in the first half and 32-of-36 for the game, finding a steady stream of points without being able to hit jumpers with much consistency. That also meant that the Clippers found themselves in considerable foul trouble, with DeAndre Jordan (no points and four rebounds in 20 minutes) serving as a non-factor.
Frankly, both teams stayed in contention this game without playing near their best. Chris Paul finished with an impressive 17 points and 14 assists, but his five second-half turnovers came after having committed just four in the prior 4 1/2 games of the series. The Clippers depended heavily on Blake Griffin (24 points and 17 rebounds) and got terrific efforts from Matt Barnes (16 points on 4-of-5 3FG) and J.J. Redick (16 points on 3-of-6 3FG). Plus, while Jamal Crawford's box score line doesn't look that impressive, he took over for a stretch of the second half and finished with 19 points. Based on the entirety of the game, it's arguable that the Clippers would have been very fortunate had they held on to win, as well.
But they didn't, of course, and now the Thunder have a 3-2 advantage as we head into Thursday night's Game 6 at Staples Center. The series has been competitive enough that the Clippers still have a solid chance to win, but they're in a hole. They can be forgiven for thinking they don't deserve to be in such a tough position.
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